Why Did the “Titanic” Band Play On?
103 years ago on April 15, 1912, the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic sank. The luxurious ocean-liner, carrying 2,200 passengers and crew, struck and iceberg and ruptured its hull. Because of a shortage of lifeboats and inadequate emergency procedures, more than 1,500 people perished in the icy waters. Here, we look at the famed Titanic musicians who kept their fellow passengers calm as the ship began to sink, even as they lost their own seats on the lifeboats.
The eight members of the Titanic’s band weren’t even crew members — instead they had been booked for the cruise through a Liverpool talent agency. All eight, bandmaster Wallace Hartley, Roger Bricoux, John Frederick Preston Clarke, Percy Cornelius Taylor, Georges Alexandre Krins, William Theodore Brailey, John Law Hume and John Wesley Woodward, perished. But they will be forever remembered by their acts of courage that fateful night.
No need to panic
They are perhaps one of the most famous bands in the world, a string octet that serenaded the first-class passengers at dinner.
However, the night that the Titanic sank, these eight musicians are credited with keeping the mood light and passengers calm. As the Titanic dropped lower and lower in the frigid water, they played light ragtime and gave the impression to the passengers on deck that all was under control — and that there was no need to panic.
Many of the survivors expressed their gratitude to the band for helping to maintain decorum during the disorganized evacuation to the lifeboats — which left 1,500 people aboard with only the hope that rescuers would arrive before the Titanic slipped beneath the waves.
Why did they stay?
Why didn’t they get aboard the last boat, Collapsible D, that left the ship at 2 a.m.?
The rule was “women and kids first.” But even those passengers couldn’t fit onto the few lifeboats — which designers had decided to limit lest they clutter the sleek ship’s majestic profile.
As Collapsible D pushed away, more than 1,500 doomed people were still aboard — many of them traveling on heavily discounted Third Class tickets and told to stay in their cabins. Not only were there no lifeboats for them, but few lifejackets as well.
And so as disaster became inevitable, the band calmly continued to play — hoping that the radio operator’s desperate SOS would be heard and that the Carpathia or other nearby ocean liners would respond in time.
Thy will be done
The band’s leader, violinist Wallace Hartley, is credited for recognizing the importance of keeping the situation calm — and knowing the effect that music would have.
When he departed from England on the Titanic he was within months of marrying his fiancée, Maria Robinson. At his funeral, she placed a cross made out of red roses on his coffin along with the handwritten prayer “O teach me from the heart to say ‘Thy will be done.’”
I will write more
French-born cellist Roger Bricoux wrote regularly to his father. In his last letter, posted in Liverpool after returning on the Mauretania, he begged him to send a letter that he could collect on arrival in New York. “I will write more on board the Titanic,” he promised. “Love to Maman and you.”
Pianist and violinist Theodore Brailey took passage on the Titanic in search of adventure. His father, Ronald Brailey was a former Baptist preacher who had left the ministry to became a clairvoyant. A story passed down the family is that Ronald feared something would happen to the Titanic and warned his son not to go.
A model pupil
Violinist Georges Krins proved to be a model pupil when he studied music at the Conservatoire Royal in Liege, Belgium. It was while playing in the orchestra of the Ritz in London that he was recruited for his first seafaring job with the Titanic.
Cellist John Wesley Woodward was named after evangelist John Wesley. When the Methodist chapel that Woodward had attended as a child was demolished in 1962, his father’s name was discovered on papers in one of four sealed jars buried in the foundations.
John Law Hume
The words from “Nearer My God to Thee” are inscribed on the memorial to violinist John Law Hume erected in his hometown of Dumfries, Scotland, in May 1913.
Pianist and viola-player Percy Taylor was a choir member at St. Antholin’s Church in Peckham, South East London. His brother, Frederick, was the church organist. He had never sailed before joining the Titanic and is believed to have taken the job to escape a bad romance.
A cross to bear
Bass violinist Fred Clarke was one of three Catholic musicians in the Titanic. When his body was discovered he was found to be wearing a crucifix and so he was buried in the Catholic cemetery of Mount Olivet in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Faithful until the end
The band’s music continued as the Titanic sank lower and lower at the bow.
The stern began to rise into the air. Still, the eight men of the band continued to play — as if to assure the remaining passengers not to panic. Then the deck became so steep that bandmaster Hartley finally released the musicians from duty.
Alone, he began the first notes of a simple hymn, Nearer My God to Thee.
One by one the bandsmen, each choosing not to leave, joined in. It was the last song the band would play. It was the final thing many of the passengers remaining on the ship would ever hear as the Titanic began its final plunge to eternity.
Nearer My God to Thee!
Moments later, the entire band was gone as the Titanic made its last plunge.
On May 18, 1912, the body of bandmaster Wallace Hartley was laid to rest as 30,000 mourners packed the streets of the little village of Colne, Hartley’s birthplace in the hills of Lancashire, England.
Seven bands played as his rosewood casket was carried throughout the streets. Musicians, aldermen, police, clergy, miners and mourners from all over England were there to pay their respects and to thank Hartley for his courage.
Today, a bronze bust remains in Colne in his honor.
Above and beyond the call of duty
When alarms first sounded, the eight musicians had already retired for the evening. Still, they put on overcoats and came out to play in the lounge. When most of the women and children of the First Class passengers had been put aboard the ship’s 16 lifeboats, the band could have followed them to safety.
Instead, they moved to the deck and continued to play as Second and Third Class passengers took what few seats remained on the last lifeboats and on the four collapsible liferafts… as the ship slowly sank.
Those who knew bandleader Hartley describe him as a man of faith, character and moral strength. At Sunday school and church, the importance of sacrifice and putting the needs of others first had been stressed throughout his life.
There are accounts of discussions he had with friends about what he would do in the face of death. They describe him as more prepared than most to meet his Maker.
His longtime friend John Carr told the New York Times:
“I don’t suppose he waited to be sent for, but after finding how dangerous the situation was, he probably called his men together and began playing. I know that he often said that music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.”
Eight brave men
Today, a number of monuments still stand in honor of those who perished aboard the Titanic, such as this one in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But the greatest monument, some say, is the legacy of bravery of those who gave up their seats on the lifeboats, and thus their lives, so that others could live.
Of the eight musicians, one grateful survivor said:
“Many brave things were done that night, but none was more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.”
Taken from the book The Band That Played On by Steve Turner from Thomas Nelson. To purchase your copy, click here!